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  Are high-protein diets safe and natural?

November 12 2003 at 12:13PM
The Argus

By Marika Sboros

PJ Powers has been on it. So have Sharon Stone, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Oprah Winfrey. Britney Spears has just gone on it and now medical specialists have come out in support of it.

It is the "high-protein diet", the most well known of which is the Atkins diet. It is also high-fat and low-carbohydrate. It has been accused of causing all sorts of health problems, from kidney stones to heart disease, cancer, diabetes and brittle bones.

This year the United Kingdom government's Food Standards Agency issued an official warning saying high-protein diets can trigger "killer diseases". The Heart Foundation of South Africa is also dead against them, saying they "can cause organ damage".

But other specialists locally and internationally say that's unscientific nonsense. They also say fears stem as much from vested interests in food and other industries, as ignorance of body chemistry.

'It has been accused of causing all sorts of health problems'
Dr Pieter Cloete, a biochemist and medical doctor specialising in biomolecular medicine in George, says that for anyone willing to see it, there is a wealth of scientific evidence proving that diets with a high protein intake are safe. They aren't even diets, in the sense of programmes aimed at weight loss, he says. They are just normal ways of eating, practised safely for centuries by traditional communities - from the San of Southern Africa, to the Inuit in northern Canada, and the Aborigines of Australia who ate mostly fatty protein, such as meat and fish, without any adverse effects on their health.

Cloete also says it doesn't make scientific sense to talk of a "high-protein" diet, because the body cannot take in more protein than it needs.

"Carbohydrate-limiting" is a more correct term, he says. Our bodies are not designed to eat large amounts of carbs.

The body has to have protein foods. It metabolises them into amino acids that are its building blocks. It is unscientific - and illogical - to say these building blocks cause organ damage, says Cloete.

Protein satiates the body, and settles hunger centres. Carbohydrates, especially refined, stimulate appetite centres, and create cravings. Cloete calls carbohydrates "the most addictive substance you can put into your body".

'It doesn't make scientific sense to talk of a high-protein diet'
The body metabolises carbohydrates into sugar, in the form of glucose, that is made available to the cells as fuel.

Carbohydrate-rich foods, such as breads, pasta, and grains, have long been touted as the body's best source of fuel, yet they are only one source, says Cloete, not the only or even the best source.

All protein foods contain small amounts of carbohydrates in complex form, in sufficient quantities to meet the body's need for fuel or energy.

Excess carbohydrates, especially when refined, release too much glucose that causes spikes - highs and lows - in blood sugar levels. The key to weight control and good health is stable blood sugar levels, says Cloete.

Fatty protein foods quickly and easily stabilise blood sugar levels, he says. They contain fats that the body is designed to cope with. The body can't cope with the fats that are abundant in refined, processed, convenience and fast foods - hydrogenated, polyunsaturated fats damaged from overheating. They form trans fatty acids that have proved to be truly toxic.

A criticism levelled at fatty protein diets is that they cause an excess of ketones from ketosis - the process by which the body metabolises fats and protein. This is supposed to be toxic to the body.

Again, this shows ignorance of body chemistry, says Cloete. If it were true, then the San, Inuit and Aborigines would have been riddled with bad cholesterol, heart disease and cancer. They were not.

Up-to-date research confirms the theories of, among others, Dr Robert Atkins, that in most people ketones do not build up to dangerous levels.

Dr Sterna Franzsen is a Pretoria gynaecologist who practises nutritional and biomolecular medicine. She joins Cloete and other specialists who say that science proves the best diet for us is the way our ancestors ate: nutritionally dense fatty protein foods, non-starchy veggies, some nuts, seeds and fruit, fresh, in season and from the region in which they lived.

Compare that with much of what makes it onto our plates these days - so heavily refined and processed it hardly deserves to be called food.

Ironically, Franzsen says, the worst diet for our health is the one still punted by orthodox dieticians and government nutritional guidelines around the world: high-carbohydrate from grains, starchy vegetables; low-fat and low-protein.

It was supposed to stem the global epidemics of obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. If anything, it appears to have exacerbated these.

Franzsen points out that in South Africa alone, after nearly three decades of low-fat, high-carb eating, close to one in five people are obese; heart disease remains the number one killer, and our Type two diabetes rate is the highest in the world.

Clearly people have grown fatter and sicker on conventional nutritional advice. Of course, there may be other factors involved, but the finger keeps pointing at far too much carbs, too little protein and fat, even in its saturated form.

Naturally, this is guaranteed to leave a very sour taste in the mouths of those who profit from the production of high-carb, low-fat foods.

  • This article was originally published on page 11 of The Cape Argus on November 12, 2003

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